Paltrow's performance compensates for awkward storytelling in familiar 'Country Strong'


On the road again, "Country Strong" covers some awfully familiar territory as it chronicles a country star's attempted comeback.

Besides, haven't we been down this road before? As recently as Jeff Bridges' Oscar-winning turn as a battered has-been in last year's "Crazy Heart"?

Yup -- and nope.

Yup to the part about a country singer staggering along the comeback trail.

Nope to the part about a has-been trying to reclaim the spotlight.

That's because "Country Strong's" resident protagonist is already a star, albeit a fallen one.

Her name's Kelly Canter, and Gwyneth Paltrow plays her with the kind of anguished vulnerability that earns Oscar nominations. In better movies than "Country Strong," that is.

Alas, this movie hardly represents accomplished filmmaking. (We'll get to the reasons why in a bit.)

Yet for all its faults, it's also got a central trio of performers who manage to compensate, at least partially, for writer-director Shana Feste's awkward storytelling.

Emphasis on the "tell," because "Country Strong" repeatedly violates one of filmmaking's basic rules: show, don't tell.

"Country Strong" opens at a swanky rehab retreat, where Kelly is trying to recover from trauma, and alcohol addiction, that culminated in a tabloid-worthy onstage breakdown -- and miscarriage.

Kelly's manager-husband James ("The Blind Side's" Tim McGraw, a real-life country star who doesn't sing a note here) wants her back on the road, so she can remind all those shocked, but loyal, fans she's still a country sweetheart at heart.

And if she's not, James has another right purty gal waiting in the wings: young pageant princess Chiles Stanton ("Gossip Girl's" Leighton Meester), who might just have what it takes -- to captivate James, that is. He'll take care of the rest.

Kelly's also got a young protege: Beau Hutton ("Tron: Legacy's" Garrett Hedlund), a honky-tonk hunk with a gallant, protective streak -- and a day job at the rehab center where Kelly's been trying to recover.

James, naturally, doesn't much like Beau, especially because Beau seems to care a lot more about Kelly than her career. And Kelly, naturally, doesn't much like Chiles. (Maybe she's seen "All About Eve" and knows all about sweet young things who want to follow in their idol's footsteps -- right into the arms of said idol's husband.)

Because Kelly's disastrous breakdown happened in Dallas, her comeback tour's scheduled to visit Texas, ending at the Dallas arena where she first fell from glory. (Dallas is invoked so often, and so fatefully, you'd think we were watching "JFK: The Sequel.")

And once "Country Strong" hits the road to Texas, the movie enters its something's-gotta-give phase, as melody and melodrama jockey for precious screen time.

With four major characters and multiple musical numbers, Feste struggles to keep "Country Strong" from splitting its cinematic seams. So, something's got to go -- and that something turns out to be motivation.

Granted, the movie's caricatured, cliche-ridden script means we already know who the characters are -- and where they're coming from. But it would help if we had enough information to understand why they keep doing what they keep doing. And that's a collective blank "Country Strong" can't be bothered to fill in.

It also seems a bit strange that a movie dealing with addiction and adultery, among other problems, shies away from depicting the sordid details as much as "Country Strong" does. Again, the old tell-don't-show maneuver may save screen time, but it does nothing to deepen our understanding of the characters or their problems.

Feste also has trouble creating the kind of character interaction that would give "Country Strong" a stronger emotional punch.

As it stands, the individual performances may be fine -- and in Paltrow's case considerably more than that -- but the characters seem caught in their own orbits, unable to break free to create a strong ensemble feel.

McGraw's the least effective, in part because his nice-guy demeanor (ideal for the likes of "The Blind Side") works against his role as a demanding, unforgiving cold fish. And he's not a subtle enough actor -- not yet, anyway -- to provide sufficient shading in such an underwritten script.

Meester suffers a similar fate, but because she's playing a character desperate to seem more self-confident than she really is, her tentative approach works better.

And Hedlund, a big bland blob in "Tron: Legacy," displays a relaxed, down-home charm that's downright compelling -- to say nothing of a beer-soaked baritone that makes him a convincing troubadour more interested in creating his music than playing the Nashville game. If only he had the same sort of integrity when rescuing damsels in distress.

And for those who never saw "Duets" -- and therefore don't realize what an accomplished singer Paltrow is -- "Country Strong" gives her a run-the-gamut showcase that combines crash-and-burn fragility with underlying fortitude. Even when the movie's at its corniest -- which is too often for its own good -- Paltrow manages to keep Kelly's downward spiral from spiraling out of control.

If only "Country Strong" had the same kind of strength.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

 

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